Do you feel differently now about Anderson Cooper's reporting?
On Monday, CNN's suave stud allowed an e-mail he'd sent to his friend, the Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan, to be published in which Cooper confirms that he is gay. It felt like a quiet early kickoff to Independence Day, for here was the 45-year-old TV personality, who has been appearing at public events for years with his long-time boyfriend, finally acknowledging in a mainstream publication a fact about his life that had already been covered extensively elsewhere. He seemed unburdened by the act.
Yet even while coming out, he took pains to insist his sexual orientation had never altered his reporting. "I have worked hard to accurately and fairly portray gay and lesbian people in the media – and to fairly and accurately portray those who for whatever reason disapprove of them," he wrote to Sullivan. And also: "I have found that sometimes the less an interview subject knows about me, the better I can safely and effectively do my job as a journalist." Cooper was referring to the possibility of being a target of physical attacks while reporting from a war zone, but his words just as accurately describe what it is to be a reporter in today's partisan media ecosphere.
Perception of bias can be toxic for a reporter like Cooper, whose reputation is built in part on the appearance of scrupulous fairness. And despite his comments, people will now view his reporting – at least on issues of sexual orientation – through a new filter, checking for signs of bias. But it turns out bias might reside more in his audience than in himself.
Last week Jonathan Stray, a journalist and computer scientist with the Associated Press, wrote about new research that outlined the mathematically puzzling notion that most people perceive news organizations as biased against them. Citing recent studies published by University of California Santa Barbara professor Scott Reid in the Journal of Communication, Stray wrote a column for the Harvard-based Nieman Foundation's Journalism Lab that outlined a so-called "hostile media effect."
"We detect and judge bias based on things other than what journalists actually wrote," Stray explained.
Reid's research suggests the perception is rooted in the psychological phenomenon known as self-categorization: that is, since we belong to various tribes at once (race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, subculture), we engage in a shorthand that amounts to "self-stereotyping," placing the same constrictive conceptual labels on ourselves as we place on others. If someone on the outside says something that could threaten the tribe (even if it doesn't threaten us directly), we react negatively.
In one experiment, Reid gave a negative review of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to two sets of participants: He told Democrats the piece had been written by a member of a Democratic think tank; he told Republicans it was written by a member of a Republican think tank. (It was actually written by Christopher Hitchens for Slate, and characterized by Reid as "a polemical piece that is scathing of Moore's film, and of Democrats.") Republicans found it even-handed, while Democrats – who believed the criticism was coming from one of their own – felt it was marginally positive toward Democrats.
(This may stem from the same phenomenon that allows members of a tribe to tell a joke about one of their own, and to respond with outrage when someone else tells the same joke.)
With this in mind, Cooper may be correct in assuming it is better for his audience to know as little as possible about him. But that now seems a near impossibility, and not only for a man dogged for years by questions about his sexual orientation. Reporters – like all the oversharers on Facebook – are increasingly public individuals, tweeting and posting pictures of their private lives. And this may, counterintuitively, be a way of breaking down the perceptions of bias. "The audience needs to be able to see the journalist as fundamentally one of them," Stray suggests.
By actively occupying many different aspects of our identities simultaneously, journalists might be able to connect with their audiences in more than one way. We all contain multitudes.